Two weeks ago I posted an annotated list of regional Indian cookbooks that seems to have struck quite a chord with a lot of cooks of Indian food online. Indeed, based on the feedback I received on that post I will soon have a sequel to that list (perhaps as soon as next weekend). That first list, as I noted in that post, was put together with the assistance of three good friends who I got to know on the Another Subcontinent food forums more than 15 years ago (!): Anjali, Aparna and Prachi. In our conversation about regional cookbooks a couple of books came up that didn’t quite fit that list as I’d envisioned it but which I filed away mentally to ask them to consider writing guest posts on later (Aparna has already written a wonderful post on reading Agatha Christie during lockdown in Delhi, which I highly recommend you read if you haven’t already—or read again if you haven’t read it recently). One of them was the Hawkins Futura Cookbook, which Prachi mentioned she’d cooked from more than any of the more formal cookbooks she owns. I’d thought I’d have to work on her for months but to my great surprise she agreed readily to write a short piece on it. And so I am pleased to announce that after being awarded the Infosys Prize for the Humanities earlier this week her first publication—very mildly peer-reviewed—is for this blog and is on a pressure cooker cookbook. I expect it will go on her cv.
On that first list of regional cookbooks are such classic books as Samaithu Paar, Ruchira and Rasachandrika, community cookbooks that also function as a means of transmitting tradition. Once upon a time this transmission took the form of serving as reference books for daughters as they became wives running their own kitchens. In a later era of greater movement, both within India and beyond, these books took on greater practical and symbolic importance, becoming ways of remaining connected to “native places” left behind. Now, of course, there are a few million blogs and Youtube videos that provide detailed, granular instruction on multiple variations of pretty much every traditional regional dish but for some of us (old people?) the tactile pleasure of a book is hard to beat.
It strikes me though that pressure cooker cookbooks played a more “secular”—for lack of a better word—version of the same role. Pressure cookers themselves, though now omnipresent in Indian kitchens, are relatively recent entrants to those spaces and from their inception—as Prachi alludes to below—represented a compromise: the modern housewife—more likely to be a working woman than her mother or grandmother—had less time on her hands for long, laborious cooking. For those who fetishize long, laborious cooking—whether they connect the dots to the patriarchal history of that mode of cooking or no—this can only be a mark of the inauthenticity of pressure cookers. But with both the mark and market of modernity brought to bear—by which I mean that pressure cooker makers are not selling to regional markets but to a larger national one—pressure cooker recipe books also offered novelty, an entree to cooking dishes from non-native places, if you were so inclined. And for those of us who moved to the US in both the pre-internet and pre-cookbook boom age, not necessarily to start married lives but to start lives as graduate students—usually in straitened circumstances—the pressure cooker cookbooks functioned as a copy of Samaithu Paar, packed in the trunk of a young Tamil Brahmin woman embarking on married life, would have—but without the same cultural baggage attached.
My own family was a Prestige pressure cooker family and I packed a Prestige pressure pan in my suitcase when I left Delhi for Los Angeles in 1993. I learned to become a better cook using that pressure pan; and also learned the hard way not to overload pressure cookers, leading in just two years to a replacement and my first full-size Prestige pressure cooker which I am still using. I too cooked from a stained Prestige recipe book—though, alas, I can no longer find it. Though the book is gone, my pressure cooker remains the most indispensable part of my kitchen. For younger Indian-Americans, I gather from Twitter, the whistling pressure cooker is both a frightening thing and seemingly a mark of otherness—hence perhaps the appeal of the Instant Pot on both fronts, being both unlikely to explode and a mark of with-it contemporaneity rather than immigrant strangeness. For me, however, the pressure cooker whistle is the sound that more than anything else connects my kitchen to those in which I first learned to desire to learn to cook.
But enough about me and my tedious thoughts. Over to the far more interesting Prachi!
A Fond Look Back at the Futura Cookbook ~ Prachi Deshpande
When I went to the US for graduate school in the late 1990s, I carried with me that essential utensil of all middle-class Indian kitchens: a pressure cooker; good for cooking rice, potatoes, and tur dal (pigeon peas). I was going to get married shortly, and my fiance and I were setting up our first place together. So my parents gifted me a fancy new pressure cooker on the market, the Hawkins Futura. This cooker was not like your usual tall pale grey aluminium ones, where the lid slid into the pan and hitched up tightly. It was also unlike the squat models, where the lid attached itself to the outside of the pan, like an eagle closing its talons over its prey. This was a dark, almost black, model with sleek lines and no protruding parts. If the earlier pressure cooker models released pressure by having the whistles jump and quiver noisily and wetly atop the lids, the Futura came with a different, quieter and politer pressure-releasing mechanism. The overall effect was rather like a stealth bomber compared to a noisy helicopter. I was very impressed.
I learned to cook seriously during those years of grad school, and the Futura, with its unique and quirky cookbook, played no small part in that education. Equal parts operating manual (with detailed instructions about assembly, cleaning and repairs) and an eclectic collection of Indian and “International” recipes (now available online), it promised the “sensible gourmet” a variety of “great-tasting slimming options.” I thought that described me and my desires rather well, so it was a good match. This was before recipes were a quick google search away. Hastily scribbled instructions from my mother or mother-in-law during phone calls over cheap international calling card plans were a poor substitute for the culinary pedagogy of hovering over, and bossing of, apprentices in the kitchen. It was also a few years before I stumbled onto Another Subcontinent, a discussion forum focused on Indian subcontinental food and culture, which transformed my cooking and gave me some lifelong friends. So I cooked my way through much of the Futura cookbook. The oil and spice stains on some of the dogeared pages are tangible reminders of those dishes that became family favourites, along with memories of hits and misses on special occasions.
The book’s Indian recipes are divided by region into northern, eastern, southern and western Indian sections, and further into vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. I had grown up vegetarian, and this was my first encounter with cooking fish and meat. So I first used the book for these options. The “Seyal Murghi” Sindhi style dish in the Northern non-veg section seemed the easiest chicken curry, so I tried that first. No marination, just a little chopped onion, ginger and tomato, pinches of coriander-turmeric-chilli powder, to which you add the chicken pieces, pressure-cook the whole thing, and voila. It was a super hit, and remains a favourite comfort dish to this day in our house. I then moved on to the Komdiche Xacuti, a wonderful, but slightly involved spicy Goan chicken dish. The Futura cookbook had a fondness for certain laborious formulas (using thick and thin coconut milk, for example, or slowly grinding spices into a paste) which it described separately and inserted into many dishes. I cheated and used tinned coconut milk for the Xacuti, which also worked. This, and the Murghi ma Kaju, a Parsi dish with chicken and cashew nuts, became my go-tos when cooking something special for meat-eating guests. Friends in the US liked this non-spicy Parsi recipe a lot. Emboldened, I tried it on some relatives back in Calcutta one winter, but it fell flat; I learned later that it was quietly “repaired” the following morning with a lot of moshla (spices) to suit their palates. There were many more: Ducrachem Vindeal (Pork Vindaloo curry); Manshor Ghugni (mutton with white peas); and Mansam chops (mutton chops – Andhra style).
The book also expanded my vegetarian repertoire beyond the Marathi and north-Karnataka stuff I was familiar with, as well as beyond the usual regional “hits.” There was Kurukku Kalan (vegetables in curd from Kerala); Vagharela Chawal (Fried rice – Parsi style); Chana Pindi (Chickpeas – Rawalpindi style); Tidali (mix of three pulses); and Matimar Khar (Black Gram with Ash Gourd – Assam Style).
What I appreciate in hindsight is how this dully organized manual-cum-recipe book managed to be remarkably diverse, inclusive, and interesting in its presentation of Indian food. Firstly, it did not divide the recipes into large “ethnic” sections of Gujarati or Bengali cuisine, but marked individual dishes according to the “style” of particular communities or states. It also unapologetically used the actual names of each dish in the languages of people who regularly cooked it, before describing them in English in parentheses: Aloor Potoler Rasa (Potato and Parwal Curry – Orissa style); Elumichham Pazham Saadham (Lime Rice – Tamil Style); and Bokrachya Masachi Kadi Tharna Masalyanth (Mutton in Green Masala – Mangalore style).
These are practices that have been hard won in debates in the food world over the last decade or so about respecting diversity and accuracy in culinary representation. The linguist in me is peeved that the book does not specify the languages to which these names belong. But just having their romanized cadences in there in addition to the subtly different tastes they promise, is interesting. The names are part of the book’s unassuming and matter-of-fact approach to Indian cuisine and Indianness: different groups cook different dishes and have particular names for them, it seems to say, and these vary broadly by region. Not every Coddi is the same as a Dalna or a Ragda, and that is fine – a generic “Curry” label does not replace the names, but merely puts them in context. There is also a refreshing lack of “Tradition” – no lamps or rice powder patterns besides dishes in copper or brass serve-ware, or glossy pictures of ancient spice markets, or earthy colours and tropical scenery just out of focus. In fact, there is adaptation and change: the Parsi dish unapologetically has tomato ketchup as a final ingredient (and it works very well, too). The whole book, after all, adapts many so-called traditional dishes to pressure-cooking, something that still drives purist cooks to bristle noisily like the energy- and time-saving utensils they deride.
The Futura cookbook, like its futuristically designed receptacle, actually imagined a modern, urban kitchen and cook trying to break free of singular regional cooking repertoires into more diverse regional, and international options. So the serve-ware in the few colour photographs is Borosil rather than brass. The preface, I realized much later, certified that the recipes had all been approved by “a panel of American tasters!” But its refreshingly relaxed attitude to Indianness is most evident in the inclusion of beef recipes. The Beefachi Kadi (Beef curry – Mangalore style), joins other “international” recipes for beef stew, pot roast, ribs, etc. At a time when beef has become a word to be uttered in hush-hush tones in
many parts of India, and rightwing vigilantes routinely harass and lynch fellow citizens for mere suspicion of consuming or storing cow meat, often with the tacit and overt support of the state machinery, these recipes are a welcome and necessary reminder of the fact that Indians do eat beef, in many interesting ways*.
Among the “International” recipes are classic dishes of what is called “Continental food” in India, a mix of French, Italian and Anglo-Indian cooking that evolved during British rule, which itself then developed regional turns across the subcontinent. Spicy Lamb Roast, Chicken in Lemon Sauce, Mulligatawny Soup, Christmas Pudding, and Lemon Custard. Ironically, I have turned to some of these only after returning to India, as my kids love Continental food, and Kolkata still has some very good old places that serve it. The author of this blog and I enjoyed a very good meal at Mocambo, one of the best such restaurants, early this year.
When I bought a new Futura in the US (I forget how, but there was a distributor), the cookbook that came with it only had these International recipes. It was clearly aimed at “Western” cooks. But it really should have included all the 82 Indian recipes as well; it would have been an excellent introduction to regional Indian cuisine.
If you buy a pressure cooker and go for the Futura, be sure to use the cookbook!
Prachi Deshpande is a historian at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She likes to chat about food as much as cook and eat it, and of late has been trying her hand at growing some of it. She has very firm opinions on Hindi film music and is willing to do battle with anyone who disagrees with her.
*After this post went live a friend communicated that recent editions of this book still have the Mangalore beef recipe, but with a sticker on the page asking people not to cook it! If we get any more concrete information about this edition and sticker, will update here. The beef recipe is also not part of their online index of recipes linked above.